Switched-On Brandenburgs

My college friend Doug was eager to share his newest album:  Switched-On Brandenburgs by Wendy Carlos, already famous for years for Switched-On Bach.

I loved the cover for a start:  thick silver and black, done as a woodcut, classical instruments on a lab table, surrounded by modern machinery à la Frankenstein.

The music itself was a hoot (as I might have said then):  it was Bach all right, but done on the most ultra-modern of musical instruments, the synthesizer.  Some of the tracks dated as far back as 1968, but the whole cycle made quite an artistic impact.

Fast forward several decades.  Doug died at the age of 49, in 2009, of an unexpected heart attack.   Till a few weeks ago, I had not heard those Brandenburgs since I had been in his dorm room as a sophomore or junior.

On the heels of Switched-On Bach (the original Walter Carlos version), I ordered a used copy of Switched-On Brandenburgs.  It came, the discs are perfect, and the shiny cover, while a bit worn, is still shiny and pleases me no end.

In maturity, and speaking as a professional classical musician, I find the performances delightful–even more so than in my youth–much more than a “hoot.”

While Bach obviously never heard any of the timbres on the two-record set, his counterpoint is the star of the show and is never less than pellucidly clear.  A few articulations–the final movement of the First, for example–are hippified, that is, heavily slurred and sprinkled with shimmery digital fairy dust.  There is the “unsatisfactory” second movement of the Third (which I quite like–if you have to improvise, improvise!)

But aside from a few cosmic moments like that, and the free use of crescendo and decrescendo, the cycle shows deep awareness of performance practice, in terms of tempo, articulation, clarity of line, and all those values.

It’s possible to learn something substantive about Bach from these recordings.  They are far from a gimmick.  The recording is frankly masterful.

I don’t think this will become my definitive Brandenburgs!  However, I do intend to listen to it often.

Beleated and repeated kudos.

About Jonathan B. Hall

Keyboard artist, sacred musician, teacher, writer, working in New York City and State. Many interests include music theory and history, literature, astronomy, genealogy, philosophy and theology, gardening, and good food.
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